Back in the young days of the Blair Ascendency there was this urgent desire to replace all the fuddy-duddy institutions with new, bright and shiny, modern replacements. The Blair government, triumphant in its massive majority, wanted to emulate the previous time when a Labour government was swept to power on a radical manifesto to change the nation. Government would be transformed at every level with devolution to the Scots and Welsh, the conclusion of the Northern Ireland process begun by John Major, the reform of the House of Lords, and having parliament meet in the day time. Old fashioned things like having a Lord Chancellor and having the courts (and local councils) oversee the process of elections were to go, replaced by a prosaic Minister of Justice, a disturbingly American sound Supreme Court and an unaccountable Electoral Commission.
For local councils the intention was clear, Blair's aim was straight from the Redcliffe-Maud and Michael Heseltine school - elected mayors for councils, reorganisation to clear out those silly districts, and a new tier of grand (and strategic) regional government. Like so much about the Blair Revolution, the local government reforms ended up as a fudge and a compromise - local councillors hated the proposals and back then Labour ran a lot of places that they'd never run before. Local councils were given a choice about whether to have an elected mayor (and near universally rejected the idea) with the alternative being the 'leader and cabinet' model where the leader of the controlling group appointed a few councillors to be the cabinet - no more than ten the rules said - leaving the remaining councillors scrabbling about doing little or nothing.
The Blair Revolution's idea was that local councils would mirror parliament with backbench councillors sitting on scrutiny committees (designed to ape Parliament's Select Committee system) that would hold the leader and cabinet to account. These committees, the government decided, would be independent - by which they meant not subject to a political party whip - and would be able to call in decisions and propose changes, even send the decision for consideration by the (whipped) full council.
It all sounded really exciting at the time, some councils (Bradford was one) even jumped the legislative gun and introduced scrutiny committees before being required to do so. The old committee system would be swept away. its fat bundles of papers, pre-briefings and meetings that lasted 15 minutes cast into history's waste paper bin. A national organisation, the Centre for Public Scrutiny, produced a set of guiding principles for scrutiny:
- provide constructive “critical friend” challenge;
- amplify the voice and concerns of the public
- be led by independent people who take responsibility for their role
- drive improvement in public services.
The new system would be fit for the modern age - streamlined, effective, transparent and public-facing. Yet somehow it never seemed that way. I chaired Bradford's first education scrutiny panel at a time when the Council was introducing a major reorganisation of schools (scrapping a three-tier system for the more commonplace two-tier system of primary and secondary). Officers, right up to the chief executive, told me I wasn't allowed to require the new education portfolio holder to attend and answer questions (she did eventually come) and nor would the leader and that chief executive come. The relatively junior scrutiny officers were put under huge pressure not to allow me to do a 'single issue' meeting just on reorganisation and I was presented with a long list of other topics that simply had to go on my agenda.
The meetings themselves were a strange affair. For much of the time they consisted of me asking officers questions supported by the liberal democrat on the committee while the five Labour members sat there like cartoon Yorkshiremen, “Ear all, see all, say nowt; Eyt all, sup all, pay nowt." Matters improved once the torturous process of appointing faith school and teacher members but the Council's corporate view remained that I should scrutinise the things that the Council wanted me to scrutinise - "it's all about driving improvement", I'd be told - rather than the things I felt the public would want me to examine.
Nothing much had changed when a decade later I returned as a scrutiny chair for adult social care - I wanted to look at (how topical) excess winter deaths but was told this wasn't for me but the health scrutiny committee. There was a constant battle between my desire to look at things that mattered - bed blocking, care home fee structures, continuing care - and the Council's preference for a long agenda of individual matters going through the authority's decision-making processes. I still, however, found myself in the position where many of the councillors barely contributed to the meeting (and would start huffling and shuffling if the end of the meeting crept passed the kick-off at Bradford City or the start of some far more important party meeting somewhere else in the City).
The reality, at least in my experience, is that scrutiny is seen as unimportant (the local press only once attended my adult care scrutiny) with the chair roles often used as de facto sinecures - a little paid job in the gift of the party that could reward a supporter or buy off an independent or minor party leader. The financial pressure on local councils has resulted in less and less officer support for scrutiny, in the merging and closing of scrutiny committees, and in the whittling down of membership to a bare minimum. Bradford's seven committees and now four (soon to be three) meaning that there's no real time to consider much of substance, especially given the increase in process aspects of these meetings ("full council has said that all procurement decisions over £350,000 should go to scrutiny").
Bad chairs, poorly managed agendas, reducing officer support - all these make for scrutiny being less effective. There is, however, a more fundamental problem - scrutiny acts to reduce effective opposition by reducing the spaces where the decision-makers on a council are questioned and challenged by their political opponents. Indeed much of scrutiny, especially where a controlling group controls the chairs, never questions the decision-makers but focuses on responding to reports prepared and presented by officers. Add to this the (understandable) reluctance of Council press officers to issue statements or releases from scrutiny chairs that might challenge the political leadership.
As we move to a new era of sub-regional mayors and combined authorities with doubtful levels of accountability (who scrutinises the LEPs, for example), we need to ask what model is best for the vital task of questioning and challenging those decision-makers? The scrutiny chair at the sub-regional level is another appointment brokered between authority leaders and the membership is either unpaid (meaning too often councillors don't give it due attention - or even turn up) or represents another de facto sinecure used to reward members.
The current system doesn't enable good scrutiny (which doesn't mean no good scrutiny takes place, just that it's rare) and means too many decisions are made poorly, too little time is spent looking at the outcomes of those decisions, and very little attention is given to accountability which should be a central tenet of a democracy. If we are to move towards the direct election of leaders and mayors, this should be matched by an adequate system of accountabiity, something not served by the current structures for scrutiny. Even if we remain with councillors elected as at present, we need to think about how the small number of councillors who make decisions can be held more properly to account for those decisions. For all its faults the old committee system did mean councillors made decisions in a contested environment, in public and open to question. The current system sees decisions made by unchallenged cabinets faced by poorly resourced and badly led scrutiny with the result that too many poor decisions get made.
Reforming local government should start here - with accountability, scrutiny and challenge - rather than with grandiose debates about geography and leadership. We are moving towards a situation where the latter (new boundaries, mayors, unitaries) come ahead of the pipework of democracy - scrutiny and accountability.